by thefourpartland

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Races form the background to a fantasy setting, giving it a depth and a texture that would otherwise be missing. They bind themselves to the environment, to the geography, in a way that few other genres can match, and in doing so they bring that landscape alive. It is very rare to pass through a fantasy book without hearing about the connection between a race and its locations, be it the holy retreat in the desert, or the high passes that gave birth to its culture.

Amongst these, the most famous are the elves, dwarves, hobbits/halflings, orcs and other creatures that sprung from the pages of myth and Tolkien. They have strong legends and many vivid depictions, but they also have a singular drawback – they are known. If you ask a fantasy reader about an elf, each one will have their own distinct impression of what elves, or orcs, or dragons, looks like and behaves. As an author, this means there is a certain inertia when it comes to describing those races, that they have fairly firm boundaries in the mind as to what is a “true” elf.

The solution to this inertia is to use new races, created for a given setting and without the extra baggage that comes with using the traditional fantasy cast. And so today, I’m going to start a series on how to design a new race for fantasy. If you’ve read my Creating a Magic System series, you’ll recognize the style.

Choice #1: Physical Form – What does it look like? Where can it live? What can it do? The critical question for many people, and one that will consume the rest of this post. Because of that, I’m going to split it into a variety of subheadings to make each section a little clearer.

Environment – Where a creature lives is critical to determining all other factors. A race that houses itself in a desert oasis will not likely have the same characteristics as one that was bred in a tundra. So before designing a fantasy race, remember to choose the primary environs where it will be housed. And remember, “everywhere” is an option. Humans have adapted to the Andes, Sahara, Siberia, Jamaica, and everywhere in between, so it’s perfectly reasonable to have a race that can do the same. I would recommend, however, that the more races you plan on introducing to the setting, the more likely it is they will have environment specific traits.

Movement – I’ve placed this before the actual physical form of the creature, because it dictates much of that form. A creature that primarily swims will have a streamlined body and either large paws or a strong tail for propulsion in the water. One that climbs will have strong, agile hands and feet, while one that is a runner is generally, long, low, with four powerful limbs on the ground. A creature that levitates can have almost any shape or form desired. Please note that these are generalities, and straying from them is by no means forbidden. The Platypus and Echidna exist, after all.

I usually research a creature that exists in a similar environment, and borrow a few traits that I think might be worthwhile. This is why the Áðexe have leathery skin – it’s borrowed from crocodiles for swimming.

Limbs ­- The number of limbs on a creature are fairly important, because of the mental associations that a reader generally holds. On Earth, creatures with four limbs are generally mammalian, and usually among the larger species, while those with six or eight (or more) are usually insectoid or arachnid, or live in the sea. Because of this, there is an inbuilt reaction that large creatures with six or more limbs may not work. Usually we readers are willing to believe, but it is necessary to tread a little more lightly with unusual races as a result

Regardless of the number of limbs, the breed in question should have at least one pair that can perform fine manipulation. Otherwise, unless they are telekinetic, they can’t manipulate tools. Aside from the ability to manipulate tools, the limbs should be designed for moving about in the environment in which the breed exists. The limbs should be proportional to the body they are attached to, although there is certainly leeway in that term.

Finally, do not forget that because the race is fantastical in nature, if it has inherent magic it can ignore many of these restrictions, because it has power beyond simply the physical.

Body – I’ll finish up the post today talking about the overall shape of the creature. The shape of a creature, and the coverings that go on top of it, can be almost anything the imagination can devise, from a hybrid lion-frog to an ephemeral wisp of energy that is nevertheless sentient. And one might be covered in pink polka dots (please don’t), while another might be rust and sand coloured patterning for better hiding in a desert high in iron.

Generally, the more time the race will spend on the screen as a talking character, the closer it is to a bipedal humanoid. This is because it is easier for a reader to relate to the character if it can understand some of his characteristics. However, the opposite is also true. The more the author wants a character to be alien, the more non-human traits are placed onto the character. A wonderful example of this is the traditional dragon – it’s both alien, yet very representative of human characteristics. Why? Because they can shapeshift between draconic (alien) and human (understood) form. Generally the “good” dragons spend more time in human form, and with humans, whereas the “bad” dragons spend their time sitting on piles of gold and lording over the surrounding countryside as a personification of evil.

The physical shape of the body is dictated by the environment – streamlined for running, flying or swimming, more upright and with larger limbs for slower creatures that can manipulate tools more easily. And for levitating or magically powered creatures, anything goes.

For the hide of the creature, there’s two primary characteristics – texture and colouring. Is it hair, scales, leather, chitinous? And then is it camouflaged, brightly coloured as a warning to others, or can it change the tone of its skin to match the environment. Scales and chitin are usually found in warmer climates, while leather and hair are warmer and found in even the coldest regions. As for skin tone, bright colours are more usually found on prey animals, while camouflage is found on both predator and prey.

Now, I know much of the advice today seems like it would be more applicable to creating an actual creature, as opposed to a race that’s supposed to play the part of a character in a story, but don’t worry, we’re coming to that in the next couple installments.


  1. Tom on 11.19.2012

    This helped me so much, thanks. Have anything on coming up with names for fantasy races?

  2. The Four Part Land on 11.19.2012

    Generally, I pick a human language I think represents the race in question. Currently, I’ve used Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon. Then any time that race is speaking in its private language, I use an online dictionary to translate the matter into the appropriate tongue. It means I can pick words that represent the creature or item in question and then just translate them so they look appropriately fantasy.  

  3. Yvone Williams on 12.18.2013

    I know I’m rather late here, but thank you so much for posting this. It’s always nice to see someone who understands physical adaptations, and even better when they are willing to share it with others. I’ll be sharing this on my twitter =)

    P.S. If you can, link to the next installment on this post. It’s a bit of a challenge finding the rest of this piece– unfortunate, because it really it great information.

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